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Freak Twister Pounces on Irvine, Hits Homes : Tornado: Stunned residents watch as windows are smashed, power lines downed and trees uprooted.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A fierce tornado dipped into a neighborhood of townhouses and damaged about 50 homes Thursday, tearing shingles off roofs, smashing windows and garage doors, uprooting trees and knocking out power to thousands.

No one was injured in the tornado, which touched the ground just east of Irvine Valley College at 12:45 p.m., officials said. But the freak twister caused damage to 45 to 50 townhouses as well as several mobile homes at a nearby trailer park, Irvine Police Lt. Vic Thies said.

“It was kind of a mini Wizard of Oz,” Thies said. “But we rescued all the Totos.”

The tornado was first reported by meteorologists at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, who were standing outside their office when they saw it sprout from underneath a large thundercloud, Marine 1st. Lt. Gary Faltinowski said.

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Faltinowski said that just before the tornado materialized, the sky was transformed into a roiling, black mass of clouds. Then he heard “a loud, sharp clap of thunder,” he said.

Seconds later, the funnel formed and began to track in a northeast direction, moving slowly from the condominiums across Irvine Center Drive, through an orange grove and across the Santa Ana Freeway before lifting back up into the angry sky.

The group of military meteorologists then ran back inside and telephoned the National Weather Service. Faltinowski said it was the first twister he recalled touching the ground in the area since 1977.

“Funnel clouds are not that infrequent,” Faltinowski said. “But they rarely touch the ground.”

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About 15 to 20 homes sustained major damage to roofs, garage doors or windows, Thies said. No damage estimates were immediately available.

Residents were stunned as they looked out their windows and saw the funnel cloud sucking up and spitting out fences, shingles and patio furniture, house plants and tree limbs.

“I was standing in my bathroom, and I opened the window because I heard some noise,” said Gary Hicks, 18, who lives on Orchard. “I could see up into the funnel. I could see the debris.”

Hicks said he then slammed his window closed, watched the tornado touch down again and then continue on into the orange groves.

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Hicks’ neighbor, Stephanie Leggee, said that she was standing in front of her living room window when she heard the deep rumbling of the approaching tornado.

“I saw a large funnel cloud with a board spinning around in it,” Leggee said. Although it missed her house, it spun her car completely around and twisted the hood.

“It happened so fast,” she said. “There was this great big, white funnel mess.”

The streets in the tornado’s path were littered with debris Thursday afternoon. Pools and hot tubs were filled with furniture, a red Yugo had been spun by the tornado up onto a sidewalk. Wood chips from gardens were everywhere. As news helicopters buzzed overhead and media besieged the neighborhood, residents worked to patch holes in roofs with tarps and trash bags, and glaziers began arriving to repair windows and sliding glass doors.

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Joanne Lorton, who lives on Bright Hollow, came home to find much of her roof gone, her carpets soaked, blinds and drapes ruined and both of her dogs missing. (The animals had been picked up along with many others by animal control officers.) Mirrored closet doors in her bedroom were shattered, and a bedroom door was blown off its hinges.

“It’s pretty devastating--my stomach’s still hurting from this,” Lorton said. “I know I’m still in shock.”

Kay Leruth, another neighborhood resident, found her wooden fence gone, along with all of her plants and a sliding glass door.

“One of our chairs is missing--it’s probably somewhere in Kansas,” Leruth said, cleaning up outside with the help of a neighbor. “Well, what are you going to do? Excuse me, isn’t that the lid to your garbage can?”

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As the twister left the neighborhood and made its way to the Santa Ana Freeway, it touched down on several storage facilities, including a city public works yard and a private boat and recreational vehicle yard.

Orville and Arlene Sampson, owners of Sand Canyon RV & Boat Storage, were leisurely having lunch inside their RV when it began to rock and roll violently.

“The wind was shaking underneath us, up down and sideways,” said Orville Sampson, 75. “It takes a lot of wind to move one of these things.”

Their RV suffered minor damage, but the twister pushed at least a dozen unoccupied RVs into each other, Sampson said.

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At the Village RV Center, located in the Traveland commercial RV center, the tornado picked up a 10- by 15-foot sheet-metal shed and blew it off the lot while an employee was inside it eating lunch.

Salesman Stewart O’Neill said the tornado caught the shed and lifted it off its wooden foundation and tore it into two pieces. The woman inside it, although badly shaken, was not hurt. Pieces of the shed landed on the southbound lanes of the Santa Ana Freeway, O’Neill said.

Power went out in the area when a 100-foot-tall eucalyptus tree fell across two power lines, said Jim Sumrow, general manager of the Irvine office of Southern California Edison.

About 7,900 homes in an area bordered by Sand Canyon Avenue, Irvine Center Drive, Culver Drive and Irvine Boulevard were affected by the power outage, Sumrow said. Power was restored about 90 minutes later.

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Sumrow, who watched the devastation from his car, said he was surprised by the tornado’s power.

“Trees 8 to 12 inches in diameter snapped like toothpicks, and they were lying on the side of the road,” he said. “I’ve lived in California all my life, and you don’t see tornadoes, so I’d have to say it’s the most violent wind I’ve ever seen in the area.”

Times staff writers Nancy Wride, Elizabeth Howton and Henry Chu and correspondents Rose Apodaca and Jon Nalick contributed to this report.

STORM BATTERS AREA: More than 4 inches of rain cause mudslides and floods. B1

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Thursday’s Twister

A rare tornado swept through an Irvine neighborhood, damaging about 50 townhomes, uprooting trees and knocking out power to thousands. But no one was injured. “Trees 8 to 12 inches in diameter snapped like toothpicks . . .” said Jim Sumrow, general manager of the Irvine office of Southern California Edison. “It’s the most violent wind I’ve ever seen in the area.”

A. A cold, low-pressure system in upper atmosphere mixes with rising unstable air, which rotates thunderstorm. B. Southernly wind, deflected to the west by mountains, rotates storm faster into tornado. C. Air rises into center of tornado increasing rotation speed and allowing funnel to drop.

Tornado Chronology Dec. 3, 1888 - Anaheim Apr. 5, 1924 - Huntington Beach Jan. 18, 1935 - Santa Ana Nov. 7, 1966 - Santa Ana Dec. 19, 1967 - Santa Ana Mar. 4, 1970 - Irvine Ranch Apr. 19, 1972 - Lemon Heights Mar. 16, 1977 - Fullerton* Jan. 31, 1979 - Two in Santa Ana, one in Anaheim* Apr. 6, 1983 - Fullerton Jan. 17, 1988 - Two in South County

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* Confirmed by National Weather Service

Researched by Danny Sullivan and Mary Kay Lewis


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